Vanderbilt Baseball: Ninth Week Behind, Week Ahead
Well, all good things must come to an end. Despite the 2-2 week and the first series loss of the season, things still look up for the Commodores. They have the midweek off after playing one of the great regular season series in recent SEC history. It was a battle of Titans and, while some might want others to kiss the proverbial ring, it was a match-up of near equals that will benefit both squads in the experience category.
The weekend also marked a milestone on the calendar — one which leads right into our Immediate Progression.
The Immediate Progression: Road to Hoover
With the SEC schedule hitting the halfway point, it’s time to take a quick peek at how the Road to Hoover is panning out. As a general rule, a trip to Hoover pretty much guarantees an NCAA birth, with those falling on the wrong side of the line in trouble. While the SEC usually puts no fewer than 8 teams in the regionals, Hoover is a nice safety net.
There are three teams that have pretty much assured themselves of a Hoover berth with early season success. Not surprisingly, those three teams are the beasts of the east.
Click through to keep on reading.
Having already played through series against Vanderbilt, Florida and Georgia (while earning the tie-breaker against each), South Carolina (12-3) appears to have the easiest route to a regular season championship and a #1 seed at Hoover. They have remaining series at Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama and will host Auburn and Arkansas. While none of those series are breezes, they should ease into a high seed for the SEC tournament.
Vanderbilt’s second half includes home series with LSU, Tennessee and Florida and trips to Kentucky and Georgia. Florida finishes with visits from Alabama, Ole Miss and Kentucky, while traveling to Arkansas and the Dores. At 11-4, each team is a near lock for Hoover but need to pick up 2 games to overtake the Gamecocks for the #1 seed.
Georgia leads the next set of teams in the Hoover race at 9-6. They will travel to Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky (all winnable series) and host more challenging Arkansas and Vanderbilt squads.
Rounding out the East are two teams with limited postseason hopes. After building up a gaudy 17-4 record against a weak out of conference schedule, Tennessee is just 4-11 in conference and faces a muddled road hosting Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn, while traveling to Vanderbilt and LSU. They are, however, just 3 games behind Auburn, the 8-seed if the season ended today.
Less likely to go anywhere is Kentucky, rounding out the cellar of the SEC at 2-13. Their remaining series include visits from Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Georgia, with trips to Baton Rouge and Gainesville looming. Of all teams remaining, they have the toughest schedule.
The West is more compact, with three teams tied for the 5 spot at 8-7. Of those, Arkansas and Ole Miss are on the upswing, while Alabama is suddently reeling. The Razorbacks will travel to Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina, while hosting Florida and Ole Miss. They should be able to earn enough wins to get to the postseason out by simply avoiding sweeps against the beasts of the East.
Ole Miss has a similar second half featuring games at Auburn, Florida and Arkansas, while hosting Mississippi State and South Carolina. The baseball Egg Bowl in the second to last week may be the key to their postseason hopes. Ole Miss benefits from skipping Vanderbilt on this year’s schedule.
The last of the troika, Alabama, has struggled of late, but gets three teams of presumably lesser caliber. They will travel first to Florida next week in a key weekend, followed by trips to Mississippi State and Auburn with visits from LSU and South Carolina. Avoiding the sweep in Gainesville could allow them to right the ship against the Bulldogs in Starkville.
As noted, Auburn (7-8) is currently on the right side of the bubble, with a 1 game lead on Mississippi State and respective 3 game leads on both Tennessee and LSU for the final spot. They will host Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama and travel to South Carolina and Tennessee down the stretch. Notably, they have the favorable status of avoiding Florida this year.
Mississippi State, at 6-9, has a slightly easier road to hoe, with three home series and having already played Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas. They start the second half by hosting the last of the top 5 teams in the SEC, South Carolina. They then will have visits from Alabama and LSU, and trips to Knoxville and Oxford.
Last in the West is the most mysterious team of all. LSU got off gangbusters on the year and was ranked highly in most polls. But they have seriously sputtered to a 4-11 start in SEC play. That said, they skip South Carolina on the SEC schedule, and after a visit to Vanderbilt this weekend, they have the easiest closing road of any team. They will travel to Alabama and Mississippi State and host Kentucky and Tennessee. While their 3 game deficit is no easy burden to overcome, a stolen series in Nashville this weekend could jump start their playoff hopes.
All told, my predictions for teams to make it are South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama. I was somewhat torn on picking between Alabama and LSU, and something tells me that the series between those two teams on May 6-8 will be the pivotal battle. But as an ever vigilant Commodore fan, I see Vanderbilt taking care of business against the Tigers this weekend in Nashville, further digging the hole from which Paul Manieri must crawl.
The Week Behind
What can one say about this week? It was great, exciting baseball. If you didn’t watch Saturday and Sunday, for shame because you missed great baseball. The midweek game, not so much.
Tuesday: Vanderbilt 1, Middle Tennessee 0
Although the Dores blew open the floodgates the week before, this was not to be a slug fest. In an ominous performance, the offense sputtered to just 8 hits, 2 walks and a hit batsman against a very weak MTSU pitching staff. A Mike Yastrzemski 2 out double scored Anthony Gomez (who extended his hitting streak to 29 games with a single) for the game’s only run. Joe Loftus had the Dores’ only multi-hit game with a pair of singles in 4 at bats.
The story on the other side was the continued dominance of TJ Pecoraro and the Commodore bullpen. Pecoraro had his finest performance as a Dore, going 5 innings and permitting only 3 base runners on 2 hits and a walk against 4 strikeouts. He was relieved with solid single inning performances by Kevin Ziomek, Jack Armstrong, Corey Williams and Navery Moore.
Pecoraro was the story, lowering his ERA to 1.40 in picking up his 6th win against no losses. Moore registered his 7th save.
Friday: South Carolina 3, Vanderbilt 1
Not much can be said about Friday night’s game, as well. It was a battle of 2 outstanding starters – 2 of the 3 best in the SEC. On this night, Michael Roth was simply unhittable, permitting only 1 run on a 1-out Brian Johns triple to left-center, followed by a Tony Kemp sacrifice fly. The Commodore bats were stifled, with only 3 hits and a walk to show for their efforts. Roth went 7.2 innings, striking out 8 for his league leading 8th win of the year. Matt Price closed the game out for his 11th save by striking out all 4 batters he faced.
On the other side of the ledger, it was a night of frustration. Sonny Gray had very good stuff and was actually spotting the ball well. But Carolina’s team flashed plus-speed in legging out 5 infield singles. They added 5 more singles to the outfield and 1 wind aided home run to left by Peter Mooney in the 7th. Gray threw 109 pitches and deserved a better fate, allowing the 3 earned runs and just 1 walk. He fell to 7-2 on the season and was relieved by Will Clinard, who threw just 1 pitch in getting a ground out to end the 8th.
With the story of the game being Vanderbilt’s inability to get going at the plate, it’s not difficult to understand that Anthony Gomez’ 29 game hitting streak finally came to an end. At the same time, Jason Esposito extended his hitting streak to 16 with a single.
Saturday: Vanderbilt 6, South Carolina 4
The Saturday game was one for redemption, with Grayson Garvin starting quickly by carving up the outside corner early. In particular, he made Mooney and Jackie Bradley Jr. look bad in several at bats. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the 2nd after a Tony Kemp double and Aaron Westlake ground out scored a run in the 1st and Mike Yastrzemski homered to lead off the 2nd.
Things would temporarily grind to a halt in the bottom half of that inning, when Garvin was strung for 3 runs on 3 singles and a walk. A key all weekend, the Gamecocks used productive outs to keep the inning going and maintain pressure on Garvin and the defense. Vanderbilt evened the game in the 3th on a wind-aided Jason Esposito home run to right field and took control with a 3 run 5, highlighted by 2 bases loaded singles by Gomez and Westlake and a bases loaded walk to Yastrzemski.
South Carolina shut things down with impressive outings from the bullpen by sidewinders Jose Mata and John Taylor, but, after Garvin got through 6, allowing only a Brady Thomas solo shot in the 6th inning, the Vanderbilt bullpen did its job to close things out. Coaches Corbin and Johnson mixed and matched in the later innings, going lefty-righty-lefty-righty with Williams, Armstrong, Ziomek and Lamm to get to the 9th. At that time, Moore came in to shut it down for his 8th save.
While the Commodore pitching staff impressed, and South Carolina starter Colby Holmes did not (4.1 IP, 7 H, 6 ER), the story of the game was probably a split between Kemp’s spectacular 5-5 day at the plate and the bad juju of South Carolina making it a nail biter despite Vanderbilt’s arms throwing very good stuff for the 2nd straight day. All year long, no team had given the Commodore staff this much trouble when they had their good stuff.
Sunday: South Carolina 5, Vanderbilt 3
Following up that theme, South Carolina and Vanderbilt played a Sunday classic in front of the 3rd straight sellout of more than 8,400 fans at Carolina Stadium (the fantastic successor to Sarge Frye). Early on, it looked like South Carolina might blow the game open, but Ray Tanner used some questionable judgment, bunting his cleanup hitter with no outs, 2 men on and a run in. After the bunt, Scott Wingo was nailed at the plate on a fielder’s choice throw from Johns at 2nd and, on the subsequent play, Gomez nailed Christian Walker at the plate on a double steal call. Vanderbilt had to breathe a huge sigh of relief having escaped with minimal damage, and Taylor Hill (6 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 6 K) was brilliant from thereon out.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt evened the game on the next pitch in the top half of the 2nd inning, with Esposito launching a home run over the left center wall. All was quiet for the next 3 innings, until Aaron Westlake hit a long, 1 out solo home run to right, followed by Esposito’s 2nd home run of the day on the another 1st pitch swing. Behind Hill’s solid work, Vanderbilt would carry that lead to the bottom of the 7th.
Having thrown 98 pitches, Hill was permitted to start the inning and gave up a double to Steven Neff. Williams relieved Hill to face Mooney, a left handed batter that he walked on 5 pitches. Coach Johnson again went to the pen, calling on Clinard to face a presumptive bunter. In the key play of the game, it appeared that Curt Casali got out from behind the plate and presumably was calling out “One” for Clinard to throw to 1st, but the pitcher glanced quickly at 3rd base before setting his right foot. His cleats slid out beneath him on what should have been an error, but was called a bunt hit, loading the bases. Again, Johnson called on the pen, this time to the freshman Ziomek. The Omega Man’s 3rd pitch caught a pinch hitter’s elbow, scoring a run on the hit batsman. Bradley Jr. followed with a liner to center field that Connor Harrell nearly snared for a spectacular grab, but went as an RBI single advancing all runners 90 feet. In a contentious at bat that featured Wingo trying to lean into 2 slow curves, the Carolina 2nd baseman grounded out to plate a 3rd run, followed by an adventurous intentional walk (Ziomek needs some practice on his intentional pass throws) and a sacrifice fly which scored a 4th run, Coach Johnson made his 4th pitching change of the inning, bringing in Armstrong, who got the 3rd out after hitting a batter.
All told, the damage was done. The 2 run lead had flipped with Carolina closer Price having entered the game in the top half of the 7th. After a pedestrian 8th inning, the 9th featured some drama. A Casali single and Sam Lind hit by pitch put the tying runs on for the Dores with 1 out; however, some borderline strike calls went the Gamecocks way (as, to be honest, they seemed to all night – a point which was subtlety noted by the ESPN2 broadcast team on at least 5 occasions throughout the game). In particular, Connor Harrell struck out after receiving a strike 2 call on a dubious checked swing appeal. For the last out of the game, Kemp was called out on a 3-2 pitch that appeared both high and outside and missed the catcher’s target.
Despite the griping of a true fan, one thing is absolutely certain: Carolina is very much for real and that was the story of the weekend. It was an epic match up between 2 fundamentally even teams in one of the 4 or 5 best environments in baseball with the most loud and hostile crowds (but not in a nasty way) this side of Florida State. Above all else, it was a playoff atmosphere and a series loss that will benefit this Commodore team when the playoffs start in Hoover and, hopefully, Nashville.
Clinard took the loss to go to 1-1 on the season. On the week, he threw just 1 pitch in each of his 2 appearances, an obscure footnote to the weekend. South Carolina’s Price earned the win, going to 4-2. In his 4.1 innings on the weekend, he struck out 11 batters, yielding just 2 hits and a hit batsman.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
My apologies go to the guys on the team. They played their hearts out and it can’t be easy to deal with the fact that sometimes full effort and a great performance is not enough. In a hostile environment against a basically evenly matched opponent, Carolina just played slightly more error-free. That several Dores have been in a bit of a funk with the bat the last two weeks did not help matters, but from an effort perspective, the team was a corps of All-Americans out there this weekend. The silver lining is that a team led by guys like Curt Casali, Sonny Gray, Jason Esposito, Anthony Gomez and Tony Kemp, among others, does not respond to a weekend like that by lying down. We’ll have a pretty good gauge of what this team is made of based on how they respond against a very talented and dangerous LSU team this weekend.
My correction goes out to South Carolina. Earlier this year, I indicated that they did not have the pitching that Florida and Vandy do. While I continue to think that Vanderbilt has the deepest staff in the nation (notwithstanding the poor 8th inning against Mississippi State and the 7th inning on Sunday against the Gamecock), it’s clear that South Carolina is right there with the Commodores and Gators. Above all else, Michael Roth has defeated Hudson Randall and Sonny Gray, something that one would not expect of any starter in America. To you, Ray Tanner and the Gamecock faithful, I apologize for misinterpretating (to quote George W) your strength for a relative weakness.
As for indignation, well it goes to CSS. Saturday’s broadcast – nationally webcast by ESPN3 – was a veritable amateur hour when it came to camera work and video editing. Early in the game, pitches and plays were missed because the cameras were on the stands. Later, they chose to show pitchers’ windups instead of the actual pitches, causing fans to miss most of the action. It was almost as if the center field camera was not even there, at times. It made me actually wish we were watching either Vanderbilt’s or South Carolina’s All-Access feed for the game; things were really that bad. For shame CSS, you’re representing the SEC Network and need to do better.
After the indignation wears off, a special shout-out goes to Anthony Gomez’ little brother Michael, who threw a perfect game yesterday in support of high school powerhouse Don Bosco Prep and against Bergen Tech. Like several Vanderbilt baseball families before them, the Gomez lineage has some baseball talent in it. The younger brother is currently a top-500 prospect in the class of 2012 as a corner infielder and right-handed pitcher.
Best Offensive Player
This was a no-brainer for the Commodores. Jason Esposito tore up Columbia with 3 home runs and a double off the top of the left-center wall. For the week, he went 6-16 with 3 runs, 3 RBI and a stolen base. He also rode his way to an 18 game hitting streak entering this weekend’s contest against Louisiana State.
On the other side, the second baseman with flair – cue Office Space references – Scott Wingo earns honors for his 5 hits on the weekend. He also had 2 walks and 3 RBI on the weekend. While an excellent hitter, Wingo is a joy to watch in the field. He is a hoover with the glove and a dynamo with his quick release throw. Like Esposito at 3rd base, you could pay to watch Wingo take infield grounders and get your money’s worth.
Sonny Gray of the Week
TJ Pecoraro earns honors this week for his stellar performance against MTSU. Taylor Hill was close with his solid 6+ innings against the Gamecocks on Sunday, but Pecoraro was simply shutdown good against the Blue Raiders.
On the other side of the hill, there’s no question that Michael Roth belongs on a box of Wheaties for shutting down an offense that entered the weekend as the SEC’s best. When you look at the stat-line and feel comfortable about turning down Matt Price’s utter dominance out of the pen, you know you’ve seen a special performance from the Friday night guy.
Around the League
SEC Weekend Scoreboard
#4 Florida at Georgia (Florida, 2-1)
Fri: UF 5, UGA 4
Sat: UGA 7, UF 2
Sun: UF 14, UGA 7
Mississippi State at #13 Arkansas (Arkansas, 2-1)
Fri: UA 6, MSU 5
Sat: UA 6, MSU 1
Sun: MSU 5, UA 3
Auburn at #21 Lousiana State (Auburn 2-1)
Fri: AU 8, LSU 7
Sat: AU 3, LSU 1
Sun: LSU 3, AU 2
Kentucky at Ole Miss (Ole Miss sweep)
Fri: UM 3, UK 2
Sat: UM 12, UK 10
Sun: UM 6, UK 5
Tennessee at Alabama (Tennessee, 2-1)
Thu: UA 8, UT 2
Sat: UT 2, UA 1 (7inn)
Sat: UT 1, UA 0 (7inn)
Top 10 Roundup
#1 Vanderbilt, 32-5 (11-4 SEC), went 2-2 with a win over MTSU and a series loss at #3 South Carolina.
#2 Virginia, 36-3 (16-2 ACC), went 5-0 with a wins over Georgetown and Coastal Carolina and a sweep of Duke.
#3 South Carolina, 28-7 (12-3 SEC), went 2-2 with a loss to Citadel and a series win over #1 Vanderbilt.
#4 Florida, 28-9 (11-4 SEC), went 2-2 with a loss to #12 Florida State and a series win over Georgia.
#5 Texas, 27-9 (11-4 B12), went 3-1 with a win over Dallas Baptist and a series win over Texas Tech.
#6 North Carolina, 30-8 (12-6 ACC), went 1-3 with a win over East Carolina and a lost sweep at NC State.
#7 Texas A&M, 26-10 (11-4 B12), went 2-2 with a loss to Rice and a series win over Baylor.
#8 Oklahoma, 26-10 (7-7 B12), went 2-2 with a win over TCU and a series loss at Oklahoma State.
#9 Texas Christian, 25-11 (10-2 MWC), went 2-2 with a loss at Oklahoma and a sweep at San Diego State.
#10 Arizona State, 25-9 (8-4 P12), went 3-0 with a sweep of Washington State.
Rankings and Metrics
Baseball America: 4th (UVA, SCarolina and Oregon St) (LW: 1st)
ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll: 3rd (UVA and SCarolina) (LW: 1st)
NCBWA: 3rd (UVA and SCarolina) (LW: 1st)
Collegiate Baseball: 3rd (UVA and SCarolina) (LW: 2nd – Virginia 1st)
Perfect Game: 3rd (SCarolina and UVA) (LW: 1st)
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: 4h
Nolan Power Index: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 41th
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: 6th
Iterative Strength Rating: 2th
Strength of Schedule: 52th
The Week Ahead
Vanderbilt has the luxury of skipping the midweek in this, the Rites of Spring hangover week. And it might be nice after such an exciting weekend in Columbia. They’ll have four full days to prepare for the suddenly free falling LSU Tigers.
Paul Manieri’s Tigers team is just flat out dangerous. They were riding high and have hit a slump in SEC play, at least a bit of which is attributable to having a freshman heavy squad. That said, they had a 19-3 non-conference slate and still have a healthy runs scored margin of 6.7 for to 4.4 against, per game. They have struggled at just 8-11 against the RPI top 50, but have an overall record of 23-14 against a strength of schedule ranked 28th (all data from Warren Nolan). Even after their well documented struggles, they earn enough votes in the Coaches poll to tally the mythical 33rd spot (in the receiving votes category). The highlight of their season was a week four sweep of then- and now-top 10 Cal State Fullerton. But they have faltered in league play with series losses to Auburn and Georgia and sweeps at the hands of Florida and Arkansas.
The Tigers rotation is all right handed and is headed by impressive freshman Kurt McCune (5-2, 2.40 ERA) on Fridays. Those stats include McCune’s last outing against Auburn, when he was touched up for 5 earned runs in 5 innings. He is followed by another freshman Kevin Gausman (2-4, 4.39) and, on Sundays, senior Ben Aslup (5-3, 3.06). Unlike Vanderbilt, bullpen depth is a problem. Closer Matty Ott (0-2, 5 saves, 3.44) is not quite what he has been in the past and his setup crew is not consistent, despite good performances from lefty Chris Cotton (0-0, 3.18, 11 games) and righty Kevin Berry (2-1, 3.71, 17 games).
The offensive revolves around SEC player of the year candidate Mikie Mahtook. Mahtook is one of the top defensive outfielders in the nation and is tearing it up at .374 with an astounding 10 home runs and 36 RBI. His supporting cast includes Raph Rhymes (.366, 2 HR, 25 RBI), JaCoby Jones (.317, 3, 23) and Austin Nola (.313, 2, 32). The bench, much like the bullpen, does not run deep on the Tigers sideline.
As a team, LSU’s team ERA is 4.02, considered high in the BBCOR era. Their team batting average, on the other hand, is a respectable .289 and they have hit with some power (60 2B, 9 3B, 24 HR). They struggle with the glove, fielding at just a .965 clip.
LSU is not a team to sleep on. While they have looked bad in recent weeks, things came together for a 3-2 victory in a must-win game on Sunday against Auburn. Ultimately, Vanderbilt will have to temper their emotions resonating from Columbia and just take care of business against a Paul Manieri team that will be jacked up for an opportunity to right their ship.
Baseball America – Top 25 Tracker Page (updates when posted by BA)
VandySports.com – Baseball Page (multiple stories and previews)
College Baseball Daily – Vanderbilt Tag (including Drew Fann’s weekly blog)
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And a special thanks to Mike Rapp at VandySports.com. He is the best photographer of Vanderbilt sports and an even better person. Without him, this site wouldn’t have most of its sports art.
As second special thanks to GamecockCentral.com. As I acknowledge I did not obtain prior permission before using certain of your photographs, please let me know (email is this website name at gmail) if you would like me to take them down. If not, I appreciate it greatly.